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HOW TO GROW
Outdoor beefsteak tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum)
SITE AND SOIL
Tomatoes need sun and shelter from winds. They like a fairly rich, pH-neutral soil with extra compost and/or manure to increase moisture retention. Keep toms away from potatoes to help prevent infection by fungal blight.
Sow in 3in. (7cm) pots in a propagator or on a warm window sill in late March/early April. Prick out into individual 3in. (7cm) pots and grow on in the greenhouse.
Harden off plants during May for planting in early June (after the frosts). Space 18in. (45cm) apart in soil or grow two plants per growbag - 10in. (25cm) pots are good too. Push a bamboo cane next to the roots to provide support as your plants grow.
Mulch soil with straw or composted bark to reduce water loss and keep lower fruit trusses off soil. In cold or northerly gardens plant through black plastic to warm the soil. I only water outdoor toms to get them growing after planting. Plants that fend for themselves always produce the tastiest toms. In late summer pinch off the growing tips two leaves above the fruit (5th truss in the south and the 3rd truss in the north).
The hot weather has meant even tricky varieties like the large beefsteaks have done well. Big tomatoes have less skin in relation to their flesh and firmness is an important characteristic so the slices don't flop off your fork.
The best this year was the classic continental beefsteak "Marmande" with more pleats than a red-leather beanbag. In a good year it develops a tangy full flavour that's the perfect match for mozzarella cheese. "Marmande" is always slow to ripen but quicker to crop are the orange "Burpees Delicious", which has a tasty solidity, and the aptly named yellow "Lemony". I'm not usually a fan of yellow toms because I find they're often mushy and flavourless. But "Lemony" has proved a real winner with a good tangy flavour, firm flesh and fast, big yields.
I bought my plants from Chris Bowers and Sons' heirloom tomato collection, along with some other treasures including the delicious "Black Cherry" - plum-coloured bite- sized fruits with an intense flavour.
When the weather is mixed, a few varieties stand out as safe pairs of hands. The old classic cherry "Gardeners' Delight" is particularly good with its tiny, ketchup-sweet fruits while the larger "Red Alert" is even quicker to crop and really zesty.
Speed to crop is important because if the summer is cool and wet the plants are prone to blight, the debilitating fungal disease that blackens and kills the stems. As blight spores spread in wet weather some gardeners grow their crops beneath plastic tents to keep off the rain yet still allows the sun to ripen the fruits.
The traditional preventative measure is to spray every 14 days from June with a copper-based fungicide such as Bordeaux mixture. Alternatively, use Dithane 945.
My allotment neighbour Jan pierces the stems with a small length of copper wire, an idea picked up on holiday in France. As a key ingredient of Bordeaux mixture it's thought the copper might keep blight at bay.
If it works, it won't be 30 varieties next year, it'll be 300!
When to pinch
Tomato varieties are either "cordon" or "bush". Cordons yield b
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